Portugal wildfire: 62 killed, victims burned in cars as they fled

Updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon June 19, 2017

Story highlights

Dozens of people have been injured, including eight firefighters

Victims were caught in the blaze as they tried to flee, officials say

(CNN) —  

A raging wildfire ripping through central Portugal has killed at least 62 people and injured dozens more in what officials there described as the “greatest wildfire tragedy of recent years.”

Eight firefighters are among the injured and four of them are in critical condition, Portuguese Interior Minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa said.

She asked the Portuguese to stop sending supplies as teams on the ground already had more than they could manage and the influx of water, food and medical equipment was creating logistical difficulties.

The government has declared three days of mourning.

The head of Portugal’s judiciary police told reporters the fire was started by lightning. “We have been able to determine that the origin of the fire was caused by dry thunderstorms,” José Maria Almeida Rodrigues said, according to the Portuguese state-run news agency Lusa.

The blaze spread Saturday to the Pedrógão Grande community, forcing residents to flee the area to escape towering flames. Pedrógão Grande is about 120 miles north of Lisbon.

A firefighter rests next to a fire combat truck in Penela, Coimbra, on June 18.
PHOTO: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images
A firefighter rests next to a fire combat truck in Penela, Coimbra, on June 18.

The municipality’s Mayor, Valdemar Alves, said there were areas “completely surrounded” by the blaze. “I am shocked with this death toll,”Alves told TVI.

“Many cars could not get out and people burned to death inside their cars,” Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes told CNN affiliate TVI. Hundreds of firefighters were still fighting the flames Monday.

Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said schools in the municipalities of Pedrogão, Figueiró and Castanheira will be closed “for an indefinite period” and exams will be postponed.

Portugal’s President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, offered a word of comfort to those still battling the fires and said that “all that could be done was done.”

Reaction pouring in

European countries are coming together to assist Portugal. France and Spain have sent planes to help battle the blaze, the European Commission said.

“We express our condolences to those that have lost loved ones,” said Christos Stylianides of the European Commission. “The EU is fully ready to help. All will be done to assist the authorities and people of Portugal at this time of need.”

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A wildfire is reflected in a stream at Penela, Coimbra, central Portugal, on June 18, 2017. 
A wildfire in central Portugal killed at least 25 people and injured 16 others, most of them burning to death in their cars, the government said on June 18, 2017. Several hundred firefighters and 160 vehicles were dispatched late on June 17 to tackle the blaze, which broke out in the afternoon in the municipality of Pedrogao Grande before spreading fast across several fronts.  / AFP PHOTO / PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA        (Photo credit should read PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
A wildfire is reflected in a stream at Penela, Coimbra, central Portugal, on June 18, 2017. A wildfire in central Portugal killed at least 25 people and injured 16 others, most of them burning to death in their cars, the government said on June 18, 2017. Several hundred firefighters and 160 vehicles were dispatched late on June 17 to tackle the blaze, which broke out in the afternoon in the municipality of Pedrogao Grande before spreading fast across several fronts. / AFP PHOTO / PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA (Photo credit should read PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)
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“Overwhelmed by the tragedy of Pedrógão Grande. The Portuguese people have our solidarity, support and affection,” Spain’s President Mariano Rajoy Brey wrote on Twitter.

Pope Francis prayed for the victims during his weekly prayer on Sunday.

“I express my closeness with the dear Portuguese people for the devastating fire that is affecting the forests around Pedrógão Grande, causing many deaths and injuries. We pray in silence,” the Pope said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also expressed his condolences on Twitter.

The Portuguese Football Federation changed its Twitter avatar to black to mourn the victims of the fire and the Portugal team observed a moment of silence before its first match in the Confederations Cup against Mexico on Sunday. The federation said it will make a donation to help the victims and their families.

Others expressed their grief on social media.

“I can’t express what is going through my soul,” Sérgio Fonseca posted on Facebook.

“I can’t go to Figueiró dos Vinhos and my parents and brothers have had a night of horror,” Fonseca said. “The roof of our home was ripped apart by the strong wind … I’m on the other side, but my head and my heart are always with them.”

He later told CNN he was able to reunite with his parents and brothers, who were tired but safe and thankful to be alive.

Travel warning

Britain issued a travel warning for its citizens warning them of the fires in Portugal and urging them to be careful while visiting or driving through woodland areas.

“Around 2.6 million British nationals visited Portugal in 2015. Most visits are trouble-free,” the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement.

On Friday, Portugal’s National Authority for Public Safety issued wildfire alerts due to high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds.

Last year, thousands of firefighters battled at least 12 huge fires across the country.

Three people were killed and over 1,000 evacuated in the Portuguese island of Madeira due to the fierce wildfires a year ago.

CNN’s Duarte Mendonca in London and Karen Smith in Atlanta contributed to this report.